OPAL and Learning for Sustainability

By OPAL community scientist Matt Keyse

We are living in a time of unprecedented changes. Population growth, inequality, climate change, biodiversity loss, consumerism and environmental harm are examples of issues that present a heady mix of challenges facing humanity.

Some of the children with whom we have completed OPAL surveys this year in Scotland will be in their 30’s and 40’s in 2050 and may have families of their own, living in Scotland with children that attend Scottish schools in a world that is estimated to contain somewhere in the region of 10 billion people.....

What will Scotland look like in 2050? What will the world look like? What challenges will they and their children face? We can only imagine, and have hope.

As educators, we have a responsibility not just to teach traditional subjects in isolation but to help these young people make sense of the world around them, preparing them for a world of change, potential uncertainty and challenge. 

Learning for Sustainability’ (LfS) has recently been integrated within Scottish teacher’s professional standards by the General Teachers Council Scotland (GTCS), a fairly unprecedented move in education worldwide. Concepts like sustainability, values, citizenship and equality are of course nothing new to Scottish teachers, only the way they are now being woven together into an integrated and underpinning approach. Teachers are being encouraged to embed sustainable thinking right across the curriculum, using a ‘whole school’ approach to develop the confidence, values, skills, attitudes and knowledge of learners that might promote a future world that is sustainable and equitable.

This is, as you can imagine, no easy task and one that can’t and won’t happen overnight. So....where can you start?

‘Outdoor Learning’ has for some time been identified as an approach that can meaningfully connect people with the natural world, something we are all part of and reliant on at the most basic level for the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

The OPAL surveys are not only helpful as a structured ‘off the shelf’ outdoor learning tool for teachers but also encourage community based ‘Citizen Science’ approaches to the way we monitor and understand the world. Sharing results on the OPAL network is empowering for young people who sometimes find it hard to contextualise why they are completing a particular activity and where their learning sits in the bigger picture.

Scientific understanding is of course at the heart of the OPAL surveys, but acts purely as a starting point. Completing a ‘Bugs Count’ survey is a not only a great way to learn more about mini-beasts but can also be a fantastic way to discover why diverse communities are more resilient. The recently launched New Zealand Flatworm survey is a good way to learn about an invasive species but can also highlight how interconnected our human and non-human communities are on this planet we share.

A little extra thought, discussion and reflection during an OPAL survey can reveal deep underlying narratives about our view of the world and the values that motivate us as individuals and within the society we live. 

We certainly cannot read the future for these young people but we do have an opportunity to develop new perspectives, to tell different stories and to improve scientific understanding about our surroundings. These are

 responsibilities we have in order to help ourselves and the young people we work with make sense of and act with care toward the changing world in which we all live.

“To live in the third millennium, ... we shall need new thinking joined with new ways of perceiving and visioning ourselves, others, nature and the world around us.”

Ervin Laszlo